Ernest Beck | Report

Hester Street Collaborative

Hester Street Collaborative's P.S. 134 community garden project. Photo: Hester Street Collaborative

Architects want to give back to society by designing for the public good. But how? Pro bono projects are the most common route, promoted by organizations like Public Architecture, which launched an initiative in 2005 to encourage firms to donate a minimum of 1 percent of their working time to volunteer service. More than 750 firms have signed up, yet pro bono efforts depend on a host of variables — from participants' available time and resources to the practice's economic health. For Marc Turkel, Morgan Hare and Shawn Watts, partners in Leroy Street Studio, a small architecture firm in New York’s Lower East Side/Chinatown neighborhood, the solution has been a two-pronged approach: to integrate community design elements into a practice that services a broad cross-section of clients, and separately, to nurture an autonomous nonprofit unit, the Hester Street Collaborative (HSC), that spearheads community design programs. Taken together, they form an unusual model in the field of design and social change.

The concept for HSC evolved from a project Turkel and Hare had previously worked on for the East New York Urban Youth Corporation to renovate the lobby and courtyard spaces at an affordable housing project and community center. The idea was to bring in artists and tile-makers to collaborate with tenants. The effort "gave people a voice and helped them to figure out how to improve a seriously neglected public space," Turkel says, "and added a layer of joy to public projects that otherwise don't have the funding." It also inspired the architects to create HSC in 2002, as a way of continuing long-term projects focused on community involvement.

One-off pro-bono projects often "cannot provide the infrastructure for a committed program, and we wanted to find a way to sustain the commitment," says Anne Frederick, an architect who started working at Leroy Street Studio and is now executive director of HSC.

With a five-person staff and an annual budget of around $400,000, HSC enjoys a symbiotic relationship with Leroy Street: they share office space and donate design services. Other funding comes from a variety of sources, including city, state and federal cultural offices, the NEA, foundations, the NYC Department of Education and earned income sources like the Chinatown YMCA.

One of HSC's first efforts was a project for Middle School 131, a public school with a large enrollment of recent Chinese immigrants that is located across the street from the Leroy Street Studio office. The architects put together a design education program that included building a sculpture garden with the students. “The idea wasn’t to create the next generation of architects and designers, but to allow students to improve their environment,” Frederick explains. In another project, HSC collaborates with the city on People Make Parks, which helps community groups navigate capital development projects for urban green space, from how to advocate for funding to influencing design decisions.

For the East River Waterfront redevelopment project, HSC worked with the grassroots O.U.R. Waterfront Coalition on a “visioning process” that channeled community views into a “people’s plan” for the waterfront, as a counterpoint to one proposed by New York City’s Economic Development Corporation. The people’s plan, based on extensive surveys of community groups, includes options for a park with sufficient open spaces, free or low-cost recreational facilities and health, education and cultural facilities that could be built — and operated for a year — on a $55 million budget. By comparison, the city’s $138 million plan did not include many of these features while giving priority, the coalition says, to high-end retail and commercial development along the waterfront.

At Leroy Street Studio, architects are still engaged in projects for paying clients. But they continue to diversify their practice to incorporate many of the goals and ideals that also underpin HSC, such as giving their clients, whoever they are, a strong voice. Leroy Street has worked on libraries in under-performing elementary schools, master planning for a new waterfront Brooklyn park, and the creation of a design construction management company, BLDG, that seeks to deliver better design on a tighter budget. “We operate independently,” Frederick says, “but we’re united in our philosophy about how architecture can play a role in system change.”

Posted in: Architecture, Business, Social Good

Comments [1]

I saw Morgan Hare speak at Structures for Inclusion '09 in Dallas, where one of his salient points was that People Make Parks and the middle school projects created a sense of ownership for the clients over spaces that are very important for the rhythm of their daily lives. 'Ownership' might be a bit loose as a driving principle or concept, but anyone who is familiar with the gentrification in that part of town over the past 30 years knows that having a modicum of control over your neighborhood goes a long way.

Architects, and especially landscape architects, have the contacts at the city planning departments, zoning boards, etc necessary to translate that sense of ownership fostered in the design process into reality. We regularly put those networks to work in service to our fee generating clients-why not leverage them for a community action group as well?
Nick McClintock

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